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I haven’t read Maggie O’Farrell before, even though her books have been recommended by various book friends. When I looked at the “best books of the year” lists, Hamnet struck me as one of the least depressing. Which is ironic since it’s about Shakespeare’s only son, who, we are all well aware, died. No spoiler — every review talks about how this book is about grief, and that is one of the few certain facts of Shakespeare’s life, that his son died as a child.

O’Farrell presents Shakespeare as misunderstood and mistreated by his family, a teenager who meets Agnes (also called Anne) Hathaway, similarly misunderstood, harangued by her stepmother, both suspect and sought out because of her talent with herbal remedies and her gift of being able to predict or sense what people are thinking or will do. O’Farrell presents their marriage as a sanctuary for both of them.

But as much as the book is about Agnes and her relationship with her mostly absent husband, it’s also about the loss of Hamnet and his presence in the family’s lives after. The scenes where Hamnet and his twin sister Judith are playing and suddenly she feels “unwell” and Hamnet realizes something is seriously wrong are harrowing. He goes around the family’s apartment, his grandparents’ adjoining house, even around Stratford, trying to get help. He can’t find any grownups.

Despite the fact that we all know it’s going to be Hamnet who dies, O’Farrell makes it suspenseful as the family gather around the twins — Hamnet has come and wrapped himself up with Judith — and one gets better as the other gets worse. Shakespeare’s sister has this thought: “Anyone, Eliza is thinking, who describes dying as ‘slipping away’ or ‘peaceful’ has never witnessed it happen. Death is violent, death is a struggle. The body clings to life, as ivy to a wall, and will not easily let go, will not surrender its grip without a fight.”

Chilling to read as we approach 400,000 COVID-19 deaths in the US and 2 million worldwide. And the twins have the plague — something that is entirely plausible but which O’Farrell points out in her afterword is her own invention. The historical record doesn’t tell us what Hamnet died of. But she noticed that even though the plague closed the playhouses in London numerous times, Shakespeare never wrote about it. What if it was too painful to write about?

The rest of the book moves back and forth between the backstory of how Agnes and Shakespeare met and married, how she sensed his greatness and his need to escape his family, how their family grows and their lives expand. And how Hamnet’s death and their subsequent grief undoes them, each in their own way. This description of Agnes in the months following Hamnet’s death illustrates O’Farrell’s poetic language and vivid imagery:

“Summer is an assault. The long evenings, the warm air wafting through the windows, the slow progress of the river through the town, the shouts of children playing late in the street, the horses flicking flies from their flanks, the hedgerows heavy with flowers and berries. Agnes would like to tear it all down, rip it up, hurl it to the wind.”

Slowly, Agnes begins to live with the grief, returns to healing people, to keeping bees, to growing herbs. The tension that has developed between she and her husband eases a bit. He becomes prosperous, realizes that she may need a change of scenery, buys the largest house in town. Agnes and Judith and her older sister, Susannah, make a new life there. Shakespeare returns from London a few times a year.

But none of them every stop trying to “find” Hamnet . . . Agnes frequently wonders this. Shakespeare admits to looking for him in the audiences who come to see his plays. When the midwife who helped bring the twins into the world tells Judith she sometimes senses Hamnet at night, Judith takes to roaming the streets, trying to sense him. Then, during one of her father’s prolonged absences, her step-grandmother comes by with a playbill: in London, people are talking about a new Shakespeare play, Hamlet.

Agnes hasn’t been to London but is outraged that he could make their grief public and decides she must go see for herself what her husband has done. Her brother travels with her, and she makes her way inside the Globe, up near the stage. While at first disappointed that the play is, to her ears, just speeches, she grows mesmerized:

“When the King addresses him as ‘Hamlet, my son,’ the words carry no surprise for her. Of course this is who he is. Of course. Who else would it be? She has looked for her son everywhere, ceaselessly, these past four years, and here he is. It is him. It is not him. It is him. It is not him. The thought swings like a hammer through her. Her son, her Hamnet or Hamlet, is dead, buried in the churchyard. He died while he was still a child. He is now only white, stripped bones in a grave. Yet this is him, grown into a near-man, as he would be now, had he lived, on the stage, walking with her son’s gait, talking in her son’s voice, speaking words written for him by her son’s father.”

It’s a haunting idea, even though O’Farrell notes that it’s unclear whether Shakespeare’s son was the inspiration for the play. In fact, in an interview for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast, O’Farrell and Barbara Bogaev discuss that it’s unclear exactly when some of the plays were written, including Hamlet.

Regardless, this is a lovely book. It brings to fictional life a woman who is often only remembered for being left a “second best bed” and makes her a really interesting, strong woman with a mind equal to Shakespeare’s. It brings a little color to Hamnet’s brief life and brings the rest of the family alive. The only thing that struck me as a little off, after reading World Without End, where the plague ravaged whole villages, was that only two people got sick in the family, and there was no outbreak around town, but that’s not what the book would focus on, anyway.

A lovely, heartfelt read. And despite the grief, it’s not depressing.

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I don’t often blog about sequels, but Ken Follett’s World Without End is not really a sequel. I was telling a coworker today that you can read it without having read The Pillars of the Earth, because while it takes place in fictional Kingsbridge, it starts a couple hundred years later. So while there are a few references to the history of the town and the people who lived there in the time of The Pillars of the Earth, you can easily follow the story without having read the earlier book.

In the 1300s, Kingsbridge now has both a prior and a prioress, and whereas Prior Philip in the first book was a savvy leader who could handle political maneuvering, but was basically basically benevolent, the Priors in the second book are decidedly not (the men anyway — the Prioresses are much more like Philip). They are deeply conservative theologically and socially, they make no attempt to understand the town they control and the lives they impact, and the worst two scheme, plot, spy, blackmail, manipulate, undermine, lie, and even steal. One of the characters sits thinking about this: “Godwyn’s influence was malign, but all the same his power never ceased to grow. Why was that? Perhaps because he was an ambitious man with no conscience — a potent combination.” This week, that really resonates, doesn’t it?

Meanwhile in similar struggles ensue among secular leaders in the guild, where some greedy and selfish folks try to hold back those who would innovate our of concern for their own power and prestige, and petty grudges trump what’s best for the common good. The heroes of the book, a builder named Merthin and a wool merchant turned nun/healer named Caris, struggle against these difficulties in the town and the priory. Caris also fights misogyny and clericism: while her experience tending the sick leads her to discover what works best and how to actually help people get better, the priests are the ones who go to college, studying ancient medical texts. They order bloodletting and goat dung poultices while Caris determines that cleaning wounds with wine, hand washing, separating the seriously ill from other patients, and even, yes, mask wearing, are more effective.

It was strange to read about a sermon denouncing the wearing of cloth masks as heretical (the prior has heard this is a muslim practice) during a plague outbreak given the world’s present circumstances, and a plot twist predicated on one faction of hospital workers refusing to wear masks and the unfortunate outcome (no spoiler, I’m sure — more mask refusers than wearers got plague, which was more or less a death sentence). Follett writes about the temptations of power and greed and how these temptations lead to cruelty and violence., and undermine community and the common good. Maybe because I was expecting it this time, it didn’t bother me quite as much. Or maybe because the horrors of right now — COVID and white supremacists and Trump apologists and the willingness of so many elected leaders to lie and mislead and for so many Americans to believe lies and be misled — are so much more tangibly awful than the fictional violence of the middle ages. Anyway, I skimmed the more violent details.

Follett published this book in 2007, a time when the Anglican communion was in turmoil about LGBTQ clergy, so I appreciated that he makes it clear in World Without End that we’ve always had LQBTQ clergy. It’s an especially nice touch that Follett makes these characters among the more likeable and responsible people in the book. I also enjoyed the parts of the story that describe the various innovations and social changes that impact his characters’ lives. And he makes an interesting narrative choice by opening the book with a group of children witnessing a mysterious event in the forest and then following the paths of those children through adulthood.

Again, I enjoyed this very much, although I ended up staying up too late reading to find out what happened. I’m looking forward to starting A Column of Fire.

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Several years ago I found both The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End by Ken Follett on the local library’s book sale shelves. The paperbacks are huge and heavy, and I suspected I’d want to read them back to back, so I’ve been waiting to have time to do that. I read one and have started the other over the past week, as well as a Christmas gift, The Book of Margery Kempe.

My edition of Pillars has a preface by Ken Follett about how he came to write about the building of a medieval cathedral. He grew up in Wales, and writes, “When I was a boy, all my family belonged to a Puritan religious group called Plymouth Brethren. For us, church was a bare room with rows of chairs around a central table. Paintings, statues, and all forms of decoration were banned. The sect also discouraged members from visiting rival churches. So I grew up pretty much ignorant of Europe’s wealth of gorgeous church architecture.” He goes on to describe living in London in his twenties, and buying a book to learn about architecture. This led him to visit the cathedral in Peterborough while he was waiting for a train on a reporting trip; he was so amazed that he says, “Cathedral visiting became a hobby for me.”

Eventually, he read The Cathedral Builders and The Medieval Machine by Jean Gimpel and learning this background planted the seed of an idea for a novel. He first sketched it out in 1976, but his agent didn’t think there was enough “melodrama.” He became a very successful writer of thrillers, including Edgar award winner The Eye of the Needle. But the cathedral book was still on his mind. He was on to something, because when he eventually wrote The Pillars of the Earth it became one of his best-selling books; he credits readers for this in the preface, explaining that word of mouth was what made it so popular.

I found it hard to put down. I definitely liked the story of Philip, Prior of fictional Kingsbridge (a different place than the real market town in Devon, apparently), the building of the cathedral, the running of the monastery, and the sections of the plot about the village, the wool business, and the community. The political, historical and social contexts are very interesting, as are the details of various building techniques and inventions. Follett hired Gimpel as a consultant when he was finally writing the book, around ten years after he thought of the idea. I didn’t care for the violence and brutality, realistic though it may be for the times (between 1123-1173).

But I think one of the appeals of The Pillars of the Earth is that Prior Philip, as Follett notes, has “a very practical, down-to-earth religious belief, a concern for people’s souls here on earth, not just in heaven.” To me, Philip represents the potential of the church to help people — especially people without much status, power, or money — thrive and live harmoniously, becoming their best selves despite human tendencies towards greed, revenge, and selfishness. That’s the overarching theme of the book, that even in a world full of unknown and unpredictable threats, as well as the more predictable and not always so benevolent dominance of a wealthy ruling class, true faith and the selfless love that grows out of it will see people through.

As heroes go, Philip is unusual: a celibate man of God who tries his best to atone for his wrongs and forgive his enemies. Also appealing are Ellen, who lives self-sufficiently in the forest for much of the book, and Aliena, who deals with numerous setbacks, mainly caused by men, but manages to live mostly as she wishes. None of these “good” characters are perfect; they sometimes do the wrong thing, which makes them more realistic. There are plenty of villains (and as I think about, they rarely do anything good) including other clerics, and reading about the civil and religious maneuvering and strife and the suffering they caused makes one marvel that mankind persisted.

Or that the church persisted, which brings me to Margery Kempe. Her Book, which covers much of her life (around 1373-1440), although it focuses on the period in her adult life when she received what she felt were revelations from God, is considered the first autobiography in English. Technically, she dictated it because she was illiterate, like many people (especially women) of her time, but it is considered her own account. The Computer Scientist thought I would find her interesting. I read her Book (actually, two books, published together) before starting World Without End, which starts in 1327, so overlaps with her lifetime.

I say she felt she was receiving revelations, because the translator (from Middle English) of this edition, Barry Windeatt, makes clear in his introduction and notes that her “assumption of a direct and special link with God” is in his view “a spurious claim, because her main concern, despite the attempts at visionary writing, would seem to be with the view others held of her as a person of particular religious capacity.” He goes on to say, “I don’t think there is any evidence of a continuing psychotic process at work here. The most satisfactory description would be of a hysterical personality organization; her behaviors served as a constant source of attention and, in her own terms, of confirmation from others around her.” He says “continuing” because by her own report, she had at least two breakdowns: one, probably post-partum depression and the other late in life for a period around two weeks long. Keep in mind that Windeatt comes to his scholarly conclusions after studying many other mystics, including some who claimed to have holy crying fits.

If someone acted like Margery today, no doubt people would suggest mental health treatment (or maybe she’d be running for office?). She had what many people in her time felt was a delusional sense that God, primarily in the person of Jesus, was speaking directly in her mind, and one manifestation of this was uncontrollable crying and “roaring” fits, often in churches. Margery even notes that she felt depressed “because of the dread that she had of deceptions and delusions,” but that God assured and comforted her. She also felt she heard directly from Mary and a number of saints. She was certain that she was persecuted for her mystical experiences, and honestly, seemed to relish this persecution because she felt is ensured her reward in heaven. And while there were many people who did harass, arrest, mock or threaten her, and she was often accused of being a fake at best or a Lollard at worst (a follower of John Wycliffe, whose views influenced later reformation figures), there were many others who thought she was telling the truth.

Either way, her book is an interesting view of the times and of an extraordinary life. She lived in and around Lynn in England, and was the child of a successful businessman who also served in many municipal offices. She married, had fourteen children, and had her own brewing business for a while. And during the times when she received her communications from God, she traveled all the way to Jerusalem, and took other pilgrimages in Europe, often setting out without much of a plan or many resources and managing to make her way. She annoyed her fellow travellers (some of whom claim they wouldn’t even take money to keep traveling with her, others of whom make up to her as soon as they see she’ll help them eat or travel better). She befriended a number of monks and priests, who read scripture and theology to her. She seemed to have what Windeatt believes in an excellent memory and an eye for detail. And when her husband was old and seriously injured in a fall, he “turned childish and lacked reason” so she “looked after him for years afterwards.”

Whatever you may think about her religious experiences, she seems to have genuinely believed, devoted herself to prayer, and acted generously towards others, both materially and in sharing what she learned and what she felt God was saying to her. She’s a fascinating character. And she would have known some of the places and possibly some of the people (she met a number of bishops) in Ken Follett’s books.

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Our younger offspring gave her father The Body: a Guide for Occupants by family favorite Bill Bryson last Christmas. It caught my eye when I was clearing piles of books off the table in the living room (actually just moving to the shelf underneath) to put out a candle carousel nativity scene the first Sunday in Advent. That was nearly two weeks ago. At 383 pages plus notes, this book is a commitment.

Bryson’s writing is as delightful as ever. As in his previous books, he tracked down stories of little known accomplishments and forgotten heroes, this time in the history of health and physiology. There are plenty of human interest stories throughout the book — I had no idea how many people have experimented on themselves, or their family members, for the advancement of science. Like Ernest Lawrence, who used the cyclotron he invented for his research as a physicist to shoot radiation at his mother’s cancer (it worked).

Bryson also relishes debunking myths, such as this beloved trope: “The more or less univeral belief that we should all walk ten thousand steps a day — that’s about five miles — is not a bad idea, but it has no special basis in science. Clearly, any ambulation is likely to be beneficial, but the notion that there is a universal magic number of steps that will give us health and longevity is a myth. The ten thousand-step idea is often attributed to a single study done in Japan in the 1960s, though it appears that also may be a myth.”

Even better, he goes on to say that the CDC’s recommendation for the amount of exercise one should get in a week is “. . . based not on the optimal amount needed for health, because no one can say what that is, but on what the CDC’s advisers think people will perceive as realistic goals.” Well, that’s not very reassuring, is it? Bryson reveals all kinds of myths and misconceptions, and repeatedly reminds readers that science is a process of discovering not only what we know, but also expanding what we don’t know. It’s refreshing to read a popular science writer who is unafraid of uncertainty. I spent a fair amount of time over the past three years in University of Edinburgh’s Science Communication and Public Engagement graduate program thinking about how to communicate uncertainty without causing people to distrust science. Bryson does it very well.

To be clear, Bryson also notes when the science is settled, which isn’t often. My takeaway is that moderation is generally a safe bet — be reasonable about sleep, food, exercise, etc. I heard an interview with Bryson last year (it may have been this one, from BBC’s Science Focus podcast) where he said the most important thing we can do to live longer is not sit around. Sitting is worse for us than most things. Which sucks, since most of us sit a fair bit; even more during COVID when we don’t have any other offices to wander into and have a chat during the workday.

Anyway, because of the subject matter, not the writing, I was ready for the book to end. Which it does, fittingly, with a chapter called The End (how we die and decompose). Nearly 400 pages of detailed information about how the various systems of the human body work (or stop working properly), what can go wrong, and how ineffectual or misguided much of what we do to take care of ourselves actually is, was plenty. If you are a Bryson fan, or like good science writing generally, The Body is certainly a good read. And in retrospect it might be a good book to leave on a living room table and dip into, rather than tackling all at once.

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I haven’t read many of Jodi Picoult’s books, but kept hearing about this latest one, The Book of Two Ways. After working my way through a long collection by Jonathan Raban, I was in the mood for a fast read. And something distracting. A love story, this novel had a twist: the main character, Dawn, is a death doula who was a highly promising Egyptologist before a family tragedy changed the trajectory of her life, and she is now facing a choice between continuing on her current path or returning to her prior one.

If it sounds a little too death and tragedy oriented, don’t worry. This book is more about living than dying. But in writing about Dawn’s two careers, Picoult definitely gets deep into the details of both ancient Egyptian burial rites (including coffin texts like the real Book of Two Ways) and contemporary end of life care. When it comes to Egyptian culture, Picoult doesn’t just talk about the myths and mummies you may have learned about in middle school world history, but also gender roles, love poetry, and different periods and rulers. And, after reading about Dawn’s second career, you’ll have a better understanding of what happens to the human body as it dies. Which you have to admit is an unusual topic for a novel that is mainly about a woman in love with two men and successful at two careers.

All of the dying is described from Dawn’s professional perspective, so none of it was sad, really. If I felt sad about anything it was that the characters are all so damn rich, smart, beautiful, and exceptional at their jobs. There is one guy who is a driver’s ed instructor. That was comforting, even if he’s married to a well off artist.

Anyway, I enjoyed this book, it was entertaining and I enjoyed all the details about Egypt (there are even hieroglyphs) and about death doula-ing. It was so entertaining that I actually ended up staying up too late reading. And it was, as hoped, a fast read. If you’re looking for an escape from the news, The Book of Two Ways is interesting and distracting.

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My dad sent me For Love & Money: Writing. Reading. Travelling 1969-87 by Jonathan Raban. He’s a fan of Raban’s travel writing. It’s taken me a couple of weeks to read this book for a few reasons. First, between the election and COVID, I’ve been a little distracted by news (ok, to be honest, I’ve been, like most of us, compulsively scrolling). Second, I have been watching more television: the four part screen adaptation of Summer’s Lease, the Great British Baking Show, and season 4 of The Crown. Third, For Love & Money just isn’t a quick read.

For starters, although the narrative is about Raban’s development as a writer, the three parts are only related in that way. It’s not like reading a book with a beginning, middle, and end. Raban tells us about his childhood and early aspirations as a writer, his starting out as a professor and his chucking academia for the freelance life. But along the way, there is a whole chapter that unless I’m really missing something, is someone else’s story (A Senior Lectureship), which I didn’t quite understand. The reviews section is very interesting, and shows readers what Raban was doing as a reader and writer, but require a little insider’s knowledge, either of the authors and their works or England and English history and society.

This makes for a sense of starts and stops rather than a smooth, flowing book. Some sections read more as narratives. I loved the part about The New Review and Raban’s early days as a freelancer. I admit to laughing out loud reading the section on Freya Stark rafting down the Euphrates and the section on Florida. Describing Stark calmly embroidering on the raft while all around, rain fell and tempers rose as the BBC crew and the locals argued about logistics Raban writes, “You need to have that peculiarly Arab sense of the absurdity of most human endeavor in the face of anything as mighty and unyielding as the landscape of the Euphrates. That is exactly what Dame Freya has: a serene humor that can be maddening to the sort of people who live off nerves and sandwiches.”

Raban visits Florida in the 80s because he’s been reading the Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald and he wants to meet him. He’s utterly amazed by the wildlife (“I had only seen alligators in zoos. Here they littered the banks of the ditch by the side of the road.”). And the natives (he describes meeting a man wearing a hat that says “If God made man in his image he must be a redneck” and the conversation they have about hunting; he also describes American senior citizens in “pastel romperwear” driving around in golf carts that are reminiscent of “tricycles and sandpits”). And the the commercial hucksterism (“It was a goldrush landscape, torn to bits by the diggings of latterday prospectors. The skyline was jagged with unfinished condos, the roadside a bright mess of of advertising hoardings that begged the passing motorist to invest in his own patch of heaven before it was too late”). “Everywhere I looked, someone was trying to bribe me to inspect their condominiums,” Raban writes. His description of touring one complex in exchange for lunch was especially funny.

He also meets MacDonald and writes admiringly about him as well as his writing. And that is the kind of writer Raban is, generous, truthful (he doesn’t hold back in the more critical of his reviews), observant, smart. There were a few places where I felt lost, because I think at times the books pieces that appeared elsewhere read a little awkwardly strung together to try to make a narrative. But I have a sense that if I’d dipped into this book here and there instead of reading it start to finish, that wouldn’t have seemed like an issue. I also really enjoyed the personal essays, in particular the story of Raban’s family and how he both grew up and grew out of his childhood and came to make peace with it.

For Love & Money ends with Raban’s finding the boat he ended up sailing around the UK in, which he wrote about in Coasting. That sounds like one of his best books. Anyway I’m glad to get to know one of my dad’s favorite writers and to be reminded of how much I enjoy travel writing. Not the kind that reads, as Raban dismissively describes, “as a more or less decorated version of the ship’s log” but the kind that tells a story about a journey. Raban explains the difference very nicely.

As a bonus, I hadn’t heard of Eland, the publisher of this book. Its purpose is to “revive great travel books” that are no longer in print, and publishes other works “chosen for their interest in spirit of place.” I’ll have to explore their list!

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My dad sent me Trouble the Water to distract me from the final pre-election campaigning. I appreciate that, and it worked. I finished it yesterday after work, as I was waiting for results. It’s a historical novel about Robert Smalls, an enslaved man who bravely sailed a steamboat that had become a Confederate war boat out of Charleston harbor and turned it over to the Union, protested segregated public transportation during the Civil War in Philadelphia, and later went on to be a five term Congressional representative for South Carolina. In Congress, Smalls fought for Black equity in the post-war South, although he was ultimately defeated in an election which featured voter intimidation by white supremacists.

His story is well worth telling. However, I found several things about Trouble the Water difficult, in light of my recent antiracism training. First, I don’t feel entirely good about a white woman writing slaves’ experience, including writing their dialogue in dialect. I know it’s common; that doesn’t make it right. Slaveowner McKee and his wife are portrayed as benevolent people, who even though they see slaves as inferior, view Robert and his mother Lydia as family. In the author’s note, Bruff makes clear that this is mostly speculative; while there is some evidence that Robert Smalls took in Mrs. McKee in her old age, there is no evidence that Mr. McKee called him “son.” And even if he did, the implication is that Robert Smalls excelled because of the benevolence of the powerful white family that enslaved him.

Also, while Bruff tells the story from the perspective of both whites and blacks, and portrays some white slaveowners as brutal, she creates a subplot about Robert Smalls and a fictional son, Peter, of the real life secessionist Robert Barnwell Rhett as a rivalry that is really more about Peter’s anger at his father than about white supremacy. In real life, if Robert Smalls had broken a secessionist planter’s arm, he would have probably have been killed. Robert Barnwell Rhett was known as the “father of secession” and it is highly unlikely that he would have tolerated a slave breaking his son’s arm.

Do I think some white people in the South may have changed their views about slavery after the Civil War? Perhaps. Do I think the story of fictional Peter Rhett “personifies the possibility of redemptive transformation in the Old South” as Bruff explains in her author’s note? Absolutely not. Even if that part of the book was believable — that an individual raised to see Blacks as inhuman and the Confederacy as worth dying for could actually just be mad at his mean old daddy — former slaveholders didn’t just mellow and stop being racist. Everything about the Reconstruction era after the Union troops left the south, and all that followed affirms that. White supremacy culture rages on, as evidenced by the fact that white gerrymandering has gripped South Carolina since the late 1880s, and returned the white supremacy apologist Lindsay Graham to office just this week.

Might I have felt differently about this book a few months ago? Probably. But as Layla Saad, author of Me and White Supremacy, tells readers who make it to day 28 of her book, “You can’t unsee and unknow what you now see and know.” And one of those things I now see and know is that white people have a history speaking for and about Black people. Especially the Black people we white people see as “good,” like Robert Smalls.

Did the author of Trouble the Water mean well? Probably so — she seems genuinely admiring of Smalls and disappointed that his story has been “suppressed.” She used her considerable privilege to get his story out. She spoke with and acknowledges the generosity of Smalls’ great-great grandson, Michael Boulware Moore. But as I read I could not shake the sense that Robert Smalls was once again enslaved, this time to the viewpoint of a “nice white lady,”* who in fictionalizing his life, elevated the perspectives of white people in order to try and present his.

*Nice White Ladies is the title of a forthcoming book by Jessie Daniels

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I’ve heard great things about Atul Gawande‘s books, but hadn’t read any of them. My dad sent me and my brother each a copy of Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End so we can have a conversation about how he’d like things to be if he reaches a point that he can’t care for himself and what he’s prefer the end of his life to be like. Gawande notes that many people avoid this kind of conversation.

Gawande explains why this matters by telling stories of patients and his own family members facing such decisions. He also briefly outlines the history of aging and dying, and the state of geriatric care (not great) at the time of his writing in 2014. It turns out, like so many other things about healthcare in America, this situation is mainly caused by money, and yet investing in more geriatric specialists or at least training in geriatrics for doctors and nurses would improve health outcomes and save money. As Gawande notes,

“If scientists came up with a device — call it an automatic defrailer — that wouldn’t extend your life but would slash the likelihood you’d end up in a nursing home or miserable with depression, we’d be clamoring for it. We wouldn’t care if doctors had to open up your chest and plug the thing into your heart. We’d have pink ribbon campaigns to get one for every person over seventy-five. Congress would be holding hearings demanding to know why forty-year-olds couldn’t get them installed. Medical students would be jockeying to become defrailation specialists and Wall Street would be bidding up company stock prices.”

Just after the study came out, however, the university where the doctors worked closed the geriatrics department. There is a shortage of geriatric specialists — because this is not a profitable specialty for the corporations that run hospitals and medical practices — even as we have an aging population. Gawande points out similar information about hospice care, and about supportive services that help seniors stay in their homes. These things all improve quality of life, well being, and mental health for both seniors and their family members, result in fewer invasive medical procedures, emergency room visits, hospital stays, etc.

Besides discussing these unpleasant aspects of our health care system, and the way the vision of the founder of assisted living was abandoned to economic efficiency and legal protections, Gawande also tells some very inspiring, and even sometimes funny, stories about people who have attempted to reform the way we care for the elderly. Like the Eden Alternative, which simply introduced cats, dogs, birds, and children into a nursing home with terrific results, and its offshoot, the Green House project. And NewBridge, a community in the Boston area where people live in private rooms with communal shared spaces. And Peter Sanborn Place, a housing project for disabled and senior citizens where the remarkable director created her own version of aging-in-place supportive care so that her residents could have full lives.

As Gawande learned all this, he came to change the way he talks with patients himself. He credits a palliative care professional, Susan Block, with teaching him to ask patients, “What do they understand their prognosis to be, what are their concerns about what lies ahead, what kinds of trade-offs are they willing to make, how do they want to spend their time if their health worsens, who do they want to make decisions if they can’t?” Block notes that the purpose of these conversations isn’t necessarily to learn people’s last wishes or determine which treatment options to pick, but rather “to learn what’s most important to them under the circumstances.” To help them “negotiate the overwhelming anxiety” that comes with “arriving at the acceptance of one’s mortality and a clear understanding of the limits of medicine.”

With these conversations, which Gawande acknowledges take time and skill, he envisions a cultural shift from the mindset that medicine should fix everything. He counsels courage, “. . . to seek out the truth of what is to be feared and what is to be hoped.” And, “to act on the truth we find.”

This is an excellent, if difficult read. It may make you angry at the systems we have erected in our society that prioritize profit instead of people. But it will also give you hope, that there are people within those systems working to make a difference. And it will give you tools to empower yourself and your loved ones when you find yourself facing mortality.

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I read All About Love by bell hooks last February, just before the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent. I don’t think I shared before that my introduction to the bell hooks, prior to reading that book, was an essay recommended by the same student who suggested I purchase Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching for the library where I worked, a student who organized a book club for other young men, who told me he was a big fan of hooks’ writing. As I look back, his recommendation was my real introduction to antiracism (as opposed to simply non-racism), although I didn’t think of it that way at the time. I am grateful to that young man and hope he is doing well now.

I digress. Back in the spring, I bought Belonging, also by bell hooks, because I had enjoyed All About Love and also Wendell Berry‘s This Day: New & Collected Sabbath Poems which I read parts of along with an accompanying Lent devotional booklet from Salt project, and Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: an Agrarian Reading of the Bible, by Ellen F. Davis, which connects agrarian themes in the Hebrew scriptures with the writing of Berry and other contemporary agrarians. I knew that in Belonging, hooks talks about how much she admired Wendell Berry’s work, not only on racism (The Hidden Wound) but also on agrarianism; in fact one chapter is an interview hooks conducted with Berry. I was looking for something that was meaningful and also affirming of humankind’s potential and so Belonging floated up to the top of my to read pile.

Because that’s the thing about hooks: despite a tough childhood and growing up in white supremacist segregated Kentucky, hooks write a fair bit about joy, integrity, creativity, self-reliance. Don’t get me wrong, she writes very clearly and searingly about “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” and does not sugar coat a thing. But she also writes about what freedom, safety and belonging she felt in the hills of her girlhood, the self-reliance and self-expression her grandparents felt in growing food and making beautiful quilts (like these), and the joy to be found in community. Growing up she learned, “Creating joy in the midst of adversity was an essential survival strategy.”

The essays in Belonging focus on community, but hooks has an expansive view of that word, to include environmental justice as well as racial justice. She talks about the sense of loss she felt leaving Kentucky, even though it had been a painful place for her, and the years she spent trying to find and nurture community in cities where she thought she did belong. But for hooks, belonging is as much connected to the human need to be in right relation with the earth as it is to the same need to be in right relation with each other. Her sense of Kentucky as “homeplace” has as much to do with the land as the people, and she writes movingly about the destruction wrought by hilltop removal and her own work to preserve land.

Having just finished Me and White Supremacy, which I was working through as I was reading Belonging, and I found myself feeling hooks was speaking directly to me when she addressed the fact that even though individual white may be anti-racist, as a group, progressive whites are as racist as any others in her experience, especially when it comes to self-segregating in white neighborhoods. I can think of only 3 homes in my neighborhood where either nonwhites or immigrants live. In fact, all my life, I’ve never lived in a truly diverse neighborhood.

In reminding us that racist habits are so deeply ingrained in American culture, hooks addresses all readers. She writes about the psychological impact of racism, systemic dominator culture and white supremacism and how that prevents both Blacks and whites from trusting and moving forward towards community. White people, she notes, are the ones who have to “work at unlearning and challenging the patterns of racist thought and behavior that are still the norm in our society” — so that it is safe for Blacks to do so as as well. And yet, she is hopeful:

“Yet most people still long for community and that yearning is the place of possibility, the place where we might begin as a nation to think and dream anew about the building of beloved community.”

Speaking to how this can come about, hooks says:

“Those of us who truly believe racism can end, that white supremacist thought and action can be challenged and changed, understand that there is an element of risk as we work to build community across difference. The effort to build community in a social context of racial inequality (much of which is class based) requires an ethic of relational reciprocity, one that is anti-domination. With reciprocity all things do not need to be equal in order for acceptance and mutuality to thrive. If equality is evoked as the only standard by which it is deemed acceptable for people to meet across boundaries and create community, then there is little hope. Fortunately, mutuality is a more constructive and positive foundation for the building of ties that allow for differences in status, position, power, and privilege whether determined by race, class, sexuality, religion, or nationality.”

How to achieve mutuality? Service. Again I can’t possibly say it better, so I will quote hooks:

“Dominator culture devalues the importance of service. Those of us who work to undo negative hierarchies of power understand the humanizing nature of service, understand that in caregiving and caretaking we make ourselves vulnerable. And in that place of vulnerability there is the possibility of recognition, respect, and mutual partnership.”

In the final chapters of Belonging she writes about how that taking care — of friends, of family, of herself, and of the land — has helped her come home. In Belonging readers can both learn and understand the forcers we are up against in contemporary America and how to overcome them. It’s not easy, but hooks shows us the way.

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I discussed Braiding Sweetgrass with a group of science librarians over the summer, and that group chose Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller as our next read. We only have to have the first half of it read by next week but I sat down with it over the weekend and didn’t want to put it down. By Sunday night I’d read the whole thing.

Miller starts out by telling readers that she began to learn about David Starr Jordan, famed taxonomist, especially of fish species, and first president of Stanford, in earnest (and in great detail — Miller was a history major and she knows how to really dig into research) when she was at a low point in her life. She wanted to know “what becomes of you when you refuse to surrender to Chaos.” She had heard about Jordan early in her science reporting career, and felt it was remarkable that when hundreds of one-of-a-kind fish specimens were broken and jumbled in the 1906 earthquake, representing years of work lost in a few minutes, he was not overcome, but dug back into his work.

While the book jacket and publicity make this sound like a science history book with a dash of memoir, it seems to me to be the opposite. Why Fish Don’t Exist is the story of a young woman trying to understand her family, her life, and her future. She’s seeking something to believe in that can make what her scientist father told her as a child less depressing: you don’t matter (and neither does anyone) in the grand scheme of things. This wasn’t meant to put her down, by the way, he just believes it, scientifically.

As Miller goes deeper into Jordan’s story, she begins to realize this man who she looked to for hope, this historical figure who managed to rise from humble origins, and get back up again and go on after many setbacks and personal tragedies, was deeply flawed. He acted unethically and selfishly, ignored or marginalised the indigenous and immigrant people who helped him collect specimens, and it’s even quite likely he murdered Jane Stanford, one of the university’s founders. He was also one of the most outspoken and prominent proponents of eugenics in America.

Miller, still struggling with her own “chaos” — depression that dogged her and her eldest sister, tension in her household growing up, a broken relationship she hoped to patch up for several years — laments, “That’s how his story ends. David Starr Jordan was allowed to emerge unscathed, unpunished for his sins, because this is the world in which we live.” The one her father taught her about. Where there is no “cosmic justice.” Unless there is . . . .

Because just when it seems she’s run the story to its end, Miller learns “that fish, as a legitimate category of creature, do not exist.” I can’t ruin the story by telling you why not — you really have to read the book. But it’s fascinating, and now I think it’s amazing that the category fish persisted for so long, and I followed my husband and grown daughter around the house telling them about it in minute detail yesterday.

What I appreciate is that Miller neither dwells too long in her own chaos nor in Jordan’s; she is thorough without being heavy handed. I learned not only that fish don’t exist, but also a whole lot about the eugenics movement (and I wondered why I’d never learned about such an important and horrible aspect of American history in any depth before). And about “story editing” — the answer Miller found when she wondered whether deluding oneself is ever a good idea. And resilience, which Miller and several other people she writes about appear to have admirable amounts of.

A fascinating read, which you will want to share (whether your current housemates want you to or not). It could have been depressing, since after all this is partly the story of patriarchal hubris. But Miller makes it hopeful and lovely and so interesting.

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